Greer Lees on creating sustainable cities

If you take a basic definition of sustainability – able to sustain – it’s fair to say cities are pretty good at sustaining themselves. London has been continuously occupied for around 2000 years, Rome for 2800-ish, while Athens is predicted to have been serving tea for 7000. These timeframes considered, it is likely that the physical and political structures currently in place (that we continue to tweak) will influence the shape of cities in the millennia to come. It’s probably possible to imagine your city still existing in 100 years; what will sustain it for 1000?

On the one hand, cities take a lot of planning. In developed countries changes since the end of WWII have to a large extent been planned. And planned around one particular technology: the car. The steep increase in population, coupled with the emergence of widespread car ownership, significantly influenced how city expansions played out. Imagine cities if the fossil fuel-powered combustion engine had not been invented in the 1800s. The decision to allow a single technology, admittedly a hugely empowering one, influence our cities has led to what we see today – paved paradise.

Planned development traditionally involves a group of ‘experts’ mapping out a city and allocating space – perhaps previously used for agriculture – for houses, business and transportation. These decisions have often been made without regard for the bigger picture – how things were going to work together in the end. Researchers discuss “the tyranny of small decisions…the long-run, often unanticipated, consequences of a system of…decision-making based on marginal, near-term evaluation. Land-use decisions made one property, one home, and one business at a time in the name of economic growth” (*Erickson). These multiple small decisions have in many cases been made without regard for their cumulative and systemic impacts.

Taking back the decisions made in the name of the car and progress isn’t cheap. Turning a motorway back into the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul, for example, was predicted to have cost approximately US$281 million.

Many of the risks we face today have been created or exacerbated by decisions made by the ‘experts’ referred to above. Building houses on sunny flood plains (vulnerable to flooding and earthquake instability), paving so that water cannot soak into the ground as easily, removing mass transit infrastructure (such as trolley buses and trams) in favour of cars, and prioritising the movements and passage of cars and trucks over humans on legs and wheels are all examples of recent decisions in city planning that have not benefited the sustainability of those cities – thereby putting the citizens at risk.

These experts are often not the people who will have to live with the long term impacts of their decisions. Participating in decision-making (as a citizen) is not always easy, but is one of the ways to help create sustainable cities. One opportunity to do this in Auckland (NZ) is the City Council-hosted Auckland Conversations, a series of talks on urban issues focussing on the future of the city. The talk on May 26, for example, is by Janette Sadik-Khan, the person who brought bikes back to New York, transformed Times Square from a carpark into a walking attraction and approved the High Line horizontal park.

Generation Zero engaged with the Auckland Council on the city’s new Unitary Plan throughout their campaign to ensure younger voices were heard about what they want for the future. It turns out young people in Auckland are happy to minimise urban sprawl and live at increased density so long as “green infrastructure” is also there to enjoy. Watch out for more from the nationwide climate-focussed advocacy group’s activities in 2014, engaging young people in the future of Auckland.

I admit, making changes to our cities is tough. Much of the existing infrastructure has been there for years, and let’s face it, they’re mainly concrete. But how about retrofitting our cities by thinking about the small changes that are already within our power to make? The increasing frequency of disaster events around the world makes addressing the inadequacies in the infrastructure of our cities even more important.

Using a vehicle that doesn’t require petrol – like a bike! – is another way to help shift the way a city functions. It’s also great for the mind and body, and helpful in disaster scenarios, when access to petrol can be limited, or impossible. Working close to where you live also has multiple everyday benefits, ranging from a short commute to being able to pop home if you forget your gym gear. Again, in a disaster scenario, chances are you won’t find yourself on the other side of a harbour / hill / tunnel / bridge from your loved ones. Household water tanks usually used for watering the garden are a great way to save on the water bill and not feel you are draining the local aquifer to keep your cucumbers growing. This water is also totally safe to drink in an emergency if you’ve regularly maintained the tank.

Something else, that I need to do: get to know your neighbours. It might only take a bit of baking or a few beers to get to know those who live metres away from you. These people could be lifelines in a disaster. Disaster events aside, the above are all simple ways to start creating more sustainable lives and cities.

*Erickson, J. D. et al (2005). ‘An ecological economic model for integrated scenario analysis: Anticipating change in the Hudson River watershed’. In R. Bruins & H. Heberling (Eds.), Economics and ecological risk assessment: application to watershed management. pp. 341-370. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.


Greer Lees is an engineer and infrastructure lover. She’s currently doing her PhD in Infrastructure Investment Decision-making and is investigating how resilience can be used to prioritise investment in local government infrastructure.